Posts Tagged Agra

Postcard from Agra

31 March 2009

Published in The Friday Times

As Indian TV channels broadcast stories on Pakistan’s domestic infighting, and rumours of a new coup d’ etat, my less perturbed alter-ego is calmed by Agra – the run down city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. I have spent three days with a delightful group of South Asian writers, poets and academics who have congregated to celebrate the SAARC writers’ festival organised by Ajeet Caur, the legendary Punjabi writer whose love for Lahore has not waned despite the iron curtain erected sixty one years ago. Caur has been managing the Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 1992 and single-handedly she has challenged the many geographical and political barriers that have been erected. FOSWAL is now a platform for writers and poets on the margins of power-drama, lighting little lamps of hope. (picture above left : SAARC writers with Pakistani delegates Ustad Akhtar (middle), Parveen Atif (second from left) and Zahid Nawaz (extreme right)

I had been reading Caur’s earthy, profound stories for decades, and always wondered if I would ever meet her. Therefore, receiving an invite from her a month ago, was a long cherished wish come true. In a few, scattered and sparkling conversations she told me how she had found me through my writings urging for Indo-Pak amity which, in the words of my cynical friends, are dreamy rants asking for the impossible. This March, the gods overseeing visas and border crossings were not too cantankerous. So I made it to Delhi the day before the conference was due to start. (more…)

Contemporary Pakistani literature in the ‘age of terror’

26 March 2009

I am posting the synopsis of my paper entitled Silhouetted Silences – contemporary Pakistani literature in the ‘age of terror’, that I presented at the SAARC writers’ festival held in Agra, India (March 13-17, 2009). The full paper needs to be edited and referenced so that will posted a little later.

Round my neck,
from time to time, there was the hallucination
of a noose, and now and then, the weight
of chains binding my feet.
Then one fine day
love came to drag me, bound and manacled,
into the same cavalcade as the others (Faiz)

Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and the global hysteria about ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’, Pakistan has faced the greatest of existential challenges after its dismemberment in 1971. As a frontline ally of the US in the war on terror, Pakistani society and polity have been engulfed by growing militancy and acts of violence commonly branded as terrorism. Whilst there is no single definition of ‘terrorism’, the mainstream media and policymakers – in the service of imperial rhetoric aimed to justify and perpetuate the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq – have established terrorism as the major threat to domestic and regional peace in South Asia. Acts of premeditated and organised violence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have thus assumed a central place in discourse on regional cooperation or its converse: the rivalries between the constructed nation states and their irresponsible power-elites.

In this milieu, the South Asian citizens have been the victims of violence, uncertainty and acrimonies that have only led to exacerbation of poverty, inequality, ascendancy of militarism and war-mantra. All of this is taking place when globalization is relentlessly seeping into domestic economies, cultures and social systems. Where does this leave the writers and poets of the region who grapple with the complex, confusing and fast changing social and political realities? Whilst the community of South Asian writers – traditionally the forbearers of intellectual and political movements – is beleaguered by corporate media industry, it has struggled to respond to challenges that events have created. (more…)

In Agra – attending the SAARC writers’ moot

14 March 2009

Finally managed to reach Agra to attend the SAARC Literature festival organised by the inimitable Ajeet Caur. It is a lovely event with people from all over the region bemoaning what has happened to the region when it should be taking off.

The news from Pakistan are disturbing to say the least and the headlines here are not all that flattering. Alas, we are in a tight corner once again.

As part of my paper entitled Silhouetted Silences – contemporary Pakistani literature in the ‘age of terror’. While I am still refining my paper, here is an excerpt:

The current political and social milieu has created deep contradictions for the writers and the poets of contemporary Pakistan. If on the one hand they are bruised by the widespread violence and desecration of humanity, on the other they are equally aware of the public mood on the way imperial powers are playing another great game in their neighbourhood. This is what makes the task of the poets and writers extremely difficult.

I quoted this powerful poem called A Mourning poem for Bajaur by Pakistan’s eminent poet Kishwar Naheed here:

Coffins have become so numerous
That the city is shrinking

The eye is oozing
And not even a word of association
Like an open wound
On the lips.

The sky looks over everything
And remains silent.
Why does it go on believing
That mankind will awake once again
From its deep slumber
And laughter will ring again
On the threshold of houses.

No, it was not yesterday
But many years ago,
We held hope with our hands
We sat in the shadow of wide-awake walls
And used to think:
Yellow-gold wheat smiles and laughs
In our court-yards

We have the same court-yards, the same threshers
But bullets jump through them,
Riddle holes in my fields
and in the bodies of my children

With my tear-soaked pillow
I sit in the court-yard, watching

Coffins have become so numerous
That the city is shrinking.

Translated by Asif Farrukhi

More later….

29th SAARC Festival of Literature to debate terrorism

1 March 2009

Source: The SAARC Festival of Literature is slated to begin from 12th March in the city of Taj Mahal, Agra and will come to close in Delhi on the 17th March 2009. Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature is organizing the Festival at a time when expectations from creative fraternity and right-minded peace activists have soared high in the aftermath of unprecedented terrorists attack on Mumbai, and sensitivities of the creative fraternity across the SAARC region, particularly in India and Pakistan, are shaken and bruised.
FOSWAL has urged people to pledge with the creative fraternity to stand together for peace and tranquility in times of terror and to celebrate the continuity of culture and creative writings of the SAARC region. The Festival will cover a wide range of themes from role of wordsmiths in times of terror to its impact on popular culture, prevailing conditions of chaos and confusion, exploring history, resolving ethnic angst, poetry recitations, and readings of short stories. (more…)

The invisibility of the Mughal princesses

18 July 2008

My piece published by the Himal Magazine 

The limitations of Southasia’s historical record can be seen in the indifference towards two notable Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa.

History – that mosaic of tales and fables that is generally, though not entirely, agreed upon – will always be contested and debated, often in the blood-lined bazaars of power. Indian history, which serves as the broad banner for the histories of Southasia, is certainly no exception in this. After all, Indian history has largely been one of power laced with the force of religion. In addition, during the course of this history, the rulers, ministers, clerics and soldiers have, with rare exceptions, all been male. Indeed, the annals of the sultanate and Mughal history, both medieval and modern, are largely tales of powerful and quarrelsome men vying for power and patronage. The local patriarchal society, influenced by the zeal of West Asian Islam, ensured the almost complete invisibility of women.

The brief reign of Razia Sultan (1236-1240) was an exception, though her ascension to the Delhi sultanate throne and subsequent dethronement and exile, as well as the continuous resistance of clergy and nobles to her political persona, only reinforced the predominance to patriarchy. Other than Razia Sultan and Queen Nur Jahan, who both gave up purdah and participated in the brutal politics of men, rarely did a woman rise to a position of authority or influence. For her part, Nur Jahan (1577-1645) experienced particular success, but her precedent was not the norm – she was Persian, after all, and was considered a particularly wily player of power politics. And Nur Jahan is demonised as a power-hungry monster, who supposedly subjugated the masculinity of her emperor husband to assume charge of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, in the words of that husband, Jahangir, the kingdom had been ‘sold’ to his wife for a cup of wine and a bowl of soup. Nur Jahan has also been accused of misdeeds that were common to powerful men of that age: bribery, nepotism and the weaving of court intrigues. Such faint praise aside, all the while her lasting contributions to the Mughal court – the cuisine, lifestyle and trends of that age – have been largely overlooked, to appear as little more than ‘feminine’ footnotes in the main narrative of Southasian power.

Lahore is where Nur Jahan and Jahangir married, and where they established their royal home. As a Lahorite, the childhood memories of this writer are inextricably mixed with those of many visits to Jahangir’s tomb. But the name of this much-celebrated monument is also particularly symbolic: it is not just the final resting place of Jahangir, but also that of the queen who lovingly designed the buildings and surrounding gardens, to their very last detail. Many of the architecturally significant additions made to the Lahore Fort, such as the zenana (female) quarters, have never been attributed to her. The irony, of course, is that Nur Jahan was the only queen who actually spent the majority of her royal life in Lahore. Other Mughal Emperors and Empresses lived in Agra or Delhi, save a few years of Akbar’s sojourn in Lahore. However, the histories of Lahore inevitably reduce Nur Jahan’s era to a brief footnote or an unread appendix.

Rilasa-i-Jahanara
But there is more to this story of the neglected women of the Mughal court than Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan. Buried within the folds of history is the tale of two princesses who have always remained well out of sight of the mainstream historical narratives of the Mughals. In recent decades, historians and novelists have indeed begun to explore the lives of princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa, but the scanty primary sources available have largely thwarted these endeavours. Nonetheless, the stories of these extraordinary Mughal women dazzle through the mists of time, and their central paradox cannot be overlooked: the princesses were royal, and hence noteworthy, and yet they are almost completely invisible in what Southasians know as ‘history’. (more…)

Why Jodhaa Akbar is a disappointment?

31 March 2008

The challenge of translating a historical era into a cinematic endeavour is daunting, especially when it concerns historically contested subjects such as the fabled love between 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jodha Bai, the legendary princess from Rajputana who later ruled India as Empress and symbolised the Hindu-Muslim accord of the times. However, it is not historical accuracy, or lack thereof, which defines the rather exasperating cinematic narrative of an otherwise glorious period of the subcontinent’s history. It is the facile treatment of history, its interpretative variants and its actors that makes the Bollywood film Jodhaa-Akbar a disappointment.

Akbar’s reign symbolised the zenith of the Mughal Empire and also some of its unique attributes. Whether it was the secular, tolerant governance based on the Sulah-i-Kul (peace with all) policy, opening up the frontiers of theological discussion, effective administrative systems or promotion of Indo-Mughal art forms, Akbar was a pioneer in most respects.

Jodhaa-Akbar attempts to capture the essence of that particular moment: the Indianisaton of the Mughal court and most importantly, the royal household. Whether it is to do with the grafting of a temple within the Agra fort or the introduction of vegetarian meals, these were significant markers for centuries to come, enabling a tiny Muslim minority to rule the non-Muslim majority. But the film fails to handle this momentous phase of history appropriately and instead churns out a masala mix that, despite the massive budget, results in mediocre film-making.

This is not to say that the film is without merit. It is visually stunning in places and A R Rehman’s music is outstanding. The two stars Ashwariya Rai and Hrithik Roshan provide glamour and unreal beauty. The settings are competently improvised and yes, the feel of the whole cinematic experience does convey the cliched Mughal aura of splendour, excess and a hybrid aesthetic. Rai and Roshan exude that enigmatic chemistry which makes them an attractive pair on screen.

But it is the treatment of the subject, characters and nuances that disappoints, especially when one remembers director/producer Ashutosh Gowariker’s earthy and under-your-skin rendition in Swades . In the pursuit of commercial success, Ashutosh relies on soft plagiarism. The battle scenes remind one of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy; the inanimate army contingents resemble those in Gladiator; and the sword fighting sequences re-enact the visual tricks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But these are all still pardonable. (more…)

Sahir Ludhianvi’s Taj Mahal

29 August 2007

Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal poem Taj Mahal has always fascinated me. It takes a most unconventional take at this beautiful monument where the poet protests at the choice of a romantic rendezvous.

Today, I found a lovely translation of this poem. I am reproducing it below – but first a few lines from Urdu:

Yeh chaman zar yeh jamna ka kinara yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deevar yeh mehrab yeh taaq
Aik shahanshah nay daulat ka sahara lay ker
Hum ghareebon kee mohabbat ka uraya hai mazaaq

Taj Mahal

The Taj, mayhap, to you may seem, a mark of love supreme
You may hold this beauteous vale in great esteem;
Yet, my love, meet me hence at some other place!

How odd for the poor folk to frequent royal resorts;
‘Tis strange that the amorous souls should tread the regal paths
Trodden once by mighty kings and their proud consorts.
Behind the facade of love my dear, you had better seen,
The marks of imperial might that herein lie screen
You who take delight in tombs of kings deceased,
Should have seen the hutments dark where you and I did wean.
Countless men in this world must have loved and gone,
Who would say their loves weren’t truthful or strong?
But in the name of their loves, no memorial is raised
For they too, like you and me, belonged to the common throng.

These structures and sepulchres, these ramparts and forts,
These relics of the mighty dead are, in fact, no more
Than the cancerous tumours on the face of earth,
Fattened on our ancestor’s very blood and bones.
They too must have loved, my love, whose hands had made,
This marble monument, nicely chiselled and shaped
But their dear ones lived and died, unhonoured, unknown,
None burnt even a taper on their lowly graves.

This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength of wealth, Has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place.

Translation by K.C. Kanda, appeared in Masterpieces of Urdu Nazm published by Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. – found here